When Great Players Play on Bad Teams

Recently, the basketball world has been agog over Steph Curry’s performances. Curry is now 33 years old and has a lot of mileage under his belt. Most people wouldn’t think of 33 as being all that old, but if you’ve played in the NBA and given it everything for over a decade, that changes things.

Curry has been draining three-pointers at an unprecedented pace. He’s hitting them from way behind the line, and he’s averaging over 30 points per game for the past several games in a row. He’s regularly scoring 40 and occasionally flirting with 50.

Here’s the thing, though: even if the Golden State Warriors, Curry’s team, make the playoffs, they’ll be one of the lower seeds, and a higher seed is likely to bounce them out unceremoniously. As great as Curry is, he doesn’t have the personnel around him at the moment to make another championship run.

This brings up the question of what occurs when great players play on less-than-great teams. This is not the first time it has happened, and it will not be the last.

The Drive to Succeed

Almost everyone wants to be the best there is at their profession. If you sell canopy tent replacement tops, you likely want to sell more of them than anyone else ever has. If you flip burgers at Wendy’s, you want to come in every day and be the best burger flipper who ever lived.

If it’s like that for everyday jobs, you can imagine how much professional athletes want to be the best of the best. They already have demonstrated remarkable drive just to step on a football field, or a baseball field, or a basketball court.

It’s true that some people are natural athletes, but even they have to work hard to play in the majors when there are always a hundred guys right behind them ready to step up if they falter.

Dan Marino

Consider a guy like Dan Marino. Marino played for the Miami Dolphins, and he was such an excellent quarterback that fans usually list his name among the greats. He was a deserving Hall of Famer.

Despite all that, Marino never won a Superbowl. He’s talked about it in interviews since sports pundits always bring it up. Marino loved his time in the league, but he never won a ring for the franchise he represented, and you can tell that it’s always going to eat at him.

The reason he couldn’t do it is that he never had quite the right group of guys around him. The front office never gave him the offense line, offensive weapons, defensive line, and special teams players to make a playoff run and capture football’s richest prize. Marino got close a couple of times, but he never overcame that final hurdle.

Personal Achievement vs. Championships

You can think of many other examples across multiple sports. Look at Joey Votto, who has played for the Cincinnati Reds for more than a decade now. Votto is a one-time National League MVP, and he keeps putting up impressive numbers even as he approaches age 40. The Reds have very seldom put the pieces in place around him even to win their division, though, much less a World Series.

Mike Trout is the same. Trout has played for the Angels his entire career. Though many experts feel that he has been arguably the best player in baseball for the past several years, the team has never come close to sniffing a World Series appearance.

It begs the question of what matters more to athletes: personal accolades or championships. Would a baseball player want to be a multiple-time league MVP, a batting champion, a multiple-time Silver Slugger, or Cy Young winner, or would they trade all that for a single ring and a chance to hoist the trophy high in the air?

Probably, no two athletes would give you the same answer. Various individuals play sports for different reasons. What matters most to one will likely not motivate another.

To get back to Steph Curry, though, he seems to be the guy who has had the best of both worlds. He’s already a three-time NBA champion because a few years ago, the Warriors were better than they are right now.

Curry seems to be the ultra-rare athlete who will finish his career with both championship gold and many sparkling personal achievements. Most people would say that he is living a charmed life.